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Neuromodulation cures Regina man’s decades-long back pain

WATCH: A self-proclaimed "bionic man" is praising a Regina surgeon's work for treating his back pain with electricity.

One Regina man is counting his lucky stars for essentially being cured after nearly three decades of chronic back pain.

David Allan, 80, first experienced back pain in 1991 following a back alley slip on some ice. Gradually his pain worsened, even after seven surgeries and countless trips to the doctor.

“Walking was very difficult, sleeping was extremely difficult and it was just a continual, painful process,” Allan said. “It’s something that you feel from the tip of your toes right through the top of your head. It’s at you all the time.”

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It was a hard life to adjust to for a man who loved to walk every day. But the pain made it almost impossible to get around. Allan struggled to get in and out of the car, going for groceries and even sitting down at the dining room table.

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But all of that changed last May when a Regina surgeon implanted a two-and-a-half-millimetre-thick device in Allan’s spinal cord — a procedure known as neuromodulation.

Controlled by a remote, the device has 16 electrical outputs that send pulses down Allan’s back to manage the pain.

“I have no feeling, no pain,” Allan said. “I don’t know what’s going on. [The device is] just quietly working away.”

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“The most wonderful thing happened to me here about a month ago. For the first time in about seven years, I slept through one whole night,” Allan said.

Dr. Joseph Buwembo, Allan’s neurosurgeon at Regina General Hospital, is the only one in Regina who can perform neuromodulation. Buwembo says Allan’s “quality of life was impaired” when the two first met, making Allan a successful candidate for the procedure.

“[Neuromodulation] is used in a situation where there’s no surgical option for the management of the person’s pain,” Buwembo said.

Surgeons first performed neuromodulation in the late 1960s, but the procedure didn’t become popular until the 1980s, according to Buwembo.

Despite the procedure not being new to the world of medicine, Buwembo says there is still a lack of education and awareness around it.

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“We still need to send information out to the public and our core health providers to learn that this model actually works,” Buwembo said, adding family doctors, chiropractors and other professionals that deal with pain management should all be aware of neuromodulation.

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“We’d prefer to have this treatment started quite a bit sooner than later because we’ve found that the sooner you implant the better the result.”

Buwembo usually does about 20 new neuromodulations each year. On top of that, he performs 25 revisions to address complications and aging electrical devices in patients’ spinal cords.

Currently, it takes about six to 12 months for a patient to get the procedure. Patients go through about a one-week trial period with the device, in order for doctors to correctly manage the electrical pulses.

“We need to adjust the stimulations so they have comfortable feelings, taking away the pain but also being comfortable with the electricity,” Buwembo said.